Genealogy Trails

James A. Garfield



James Garfield portrait

JAMES ABRAM GARFIELD, twentieth President of the United States, may be considered as the most perfect type of the self-made American. Born in poverty and obscurity-farmhand, boatman, teacher, professor, captain, general, lawyer, representative, senator-elect, chief magistrate of the world's greatest republic - every successive gradation in his honorable career was the direct result of his individual perseverance. Huguenot and Puritan blood mingled in his veins. The physical strength and intellectual vigor which were his by inheritance, more than compensated for his lack of wealth. Before the second anniversary of his birth, which took place in a log-cabin in Orange Township, Ohio, November 19, 1831, he was fatherless, left with his brother and two sisters, all older than himself, to the watchful care of the mother whom, in his manhood, he so profoundly revered, and who outlived her martyr-son. As soon as he was able, he began to perform his appointed part of the farm work, and in early boyhood he acquired the love of books which remained so strong through his whole life. He possessed a cheerful disposition, but was quick to resent an injury. He earned his first money in a potash factory. He worked for some time as a wood-cutter, and learned enough of the carpenter's trade to build a neat frame house in place of the log-cabin; but he lived at home until he was about seventeen years of age.

From reading tales of the sea, young Garfield conceived a fondness for the life of a sailor, and he went to Cleveland with the intention of shipping before the mast, but the brutality of the seamen, joined to his mother's opposition, caused him to seek other employment. For several months he worked on the tow-path of the Pennsylvania and Ohio canal, a rough experience which brought on a severe fit of sickness, and compelled him to return home. Encouraged by his mother and his old schoolmaster, he now determined to obtain an education which should fit him for some useful station, and' in March, 1849, he became a student at a normal academy at Chester. In the fall of 1851, he entered upon a more advanced course of study at Hiram College, three years later was admitted to the junior class at Williams, and graduated with high honors in 1856, at the age of twenty-five. During the seven years of his academic and collegiate course, he defrayed the expenses of his tuition and supported himself by the labor of his hands, and by teaching. At college his frank and genial manners, the intense virility of his intellectual faculties, and the elevation of his ideas produced a lasting impression both upon his instructors, and his fellow students. He excelled in the classics, contributed ably-written philosophical essays to the Williams Quarterly Review, and was without a peer as a controversialist, and an orator.

Returning to Ohio, Mr. Garfield accepted the position of Professor of Ancient Languages and English Literature in Hiram College, not far distant from his mother's home. He was a teacher of rare excellence, his methods being calculated to impart knowledge to his pupils with the least possible drudgery compatible with thoroughness. He was a believer in physical culture, and entered heartily into the athletic sports of the scholars; but he was, nevertheless, a strict disciplinarian, and could, when necessary, upon rare occasions, act with fitting severity. Hiram College was then, as now, under the control of the denomination known as Disciples. Mr. Garfield had connected himself with that communion while in the academy at Chester, and he never severed his connection with the church without a creed. He frequently occupied the College pulpit on the Sabbath as a lay preacher. In November, 1858, he was married to Miss Lucretia Rudolph, who had been his pupil, a highly accomplished lady of uncommon abilities and circumspection. Not long before his marriage, he had been elected president of the college faculty.

While at Williams, Mr. Garfield had listened to an address by a Massachusetts congressman, upon the Kansas-Nebraska struggle. He was deeply interested, informed himself more fully upon the subject, and returned to Ohio, a thorough Republican and opponent of slavery. With eloquence and earnestness he urged his neighbors and fellow-citizens to accept the opinions which he had embraced. His fitness for public service was recognized, and he was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859. He was the junior member of that body, but he exerted an influence which was not, perhaps, excelled by any other. His services in connection with educational matters, and the geological survey of the State, were of much importance, and he was the champion of the series of measures, by which Ohio was prepared to perform her part in restoring the unity of the nation when the standard of revolt was raised by the Southern leaders, bent upon the perpetuation of the hideous corner-stone of their social state. Amid all the duties of the college and of public life, he found time to pursue the study of the law, and toward the close of his term in the Ohio Legislature, he was admitted to the bar.

Many of the students of Hiram College entered the Federal service in 1861, and its president resigned his office to accept the commission of lieutenant-colonel, and soon afterward of Colonel of the Forty-Second Ohio Volunteers. Being entirely without experience in military matters, he devoted his whole energy to the mastery of tactics and the science of war. Establishing a camp of instruction near Columbus, he instructed his command as he learned himself, and when he went to the front in December, 1861, he was already a competent officer, and led a brave and efficient regiment. He reported to General Buell at Louisville, and hardly had he taken the field when he was assigned to the command of a brigade, and ordered to drive the rebels, under Humphrey Marshall, out of the Sandy Valley. This duty was performed in a campaign which lasted scarcely two weeks, but which was one of the most brilliant of the War. By many writers, his victory at Middle Creek, in January, 1862, is considered as the first success of decided importance which was won by the National arms. He effectually rid Eastern Kentucky from the insurgents, and his work was never undone. It met with especial approval from Mr. Lincoln, and Colonel Garfield was promoted to be a brigadier general.

He followed the fortunes of the Army of the Cumberland, including its participation in the memorable second day at Pittsburgh Landing, until August, 1862, when sickness compelled him to withdraw temporarily from active service, just as he had been assigned to the command of the forces at Cumberland Gap. Upon his recovery he was ordered to Washington, and he was a member of the court-martial by which, in January, 1863, after a session of forty-five days, Fitz-John Porter was sentenced to be cashiered for cowardice and disobedience. After the close of the trial, he again joined the Army of the Cumberland, now becoming chief-of-staff to General Rosecrans. In this capacity, he took part in the battle of Chickamauga, September 20. In that action he performed the perilous duty of carrying to General Thomas, through a murderous fire from the enemy, the orders which saved the Union defeat from becoming a rout. Chickamauga cost Rosecrans his command, but made Garfield a major-general.

Hardly had he received his commission, when he resigned it, to accept the seat in Congress to which he had been elected a year previously. General Thomas offered him the command of a corps, and he would, if left to himself, have remained in the army, but President Lincoln urged him so strenuously to enter Congress, that he took his advice. At eight successive elections, he was re-chosen to represent the same district, by votes so uniformly heavy, that he was frequently spoken of as "Great-Majority Garfield." During his seventeen years of continuous legislative service, he discussed the great questions of our national policy with the ability and intellect of a profound statesman. The important problems of reconstruction, the restoration of the currency to a specie basis, the extension of the suffrage to the race just freed from bondage, the protection of American industries, were aided to a solution by his preeminent skill as a parliamentary debater. He was at first placed upon the Military Committee, later upon that of Ways and Means. When questions of finance began to assume prominence, he was made chairman of the Committee on Banking and Commerce, and in the Forty-Second and Forty-Third Congresses; he was at the head of the Committee on Appropriations. During the closing years of his service, his party was in the minority, and after Mr. Blaine left the House in 1876, Mr. Garfield became the acknowledged Republican leader. With the great majority of his Republican colleagues, he opposed the Electoral Commission Bill of 1877, as establishing a "vast and cumbrous machine." But the bill became a law, and Mr. Garfield was elected a member of the Commission which decided Mr. Hayes to have been elected President.

On the 13th of January, 1880, Mr. Garfield was elected to the National Senate, but he never took his seat. Before the time had come for him to do so, he had been chosen President of the United States. His nomination for that office, in June, 1880, was unsought and unexpected, but in every way creditable to the party which made it. He received two hundred and fourteen electoral votes, his opponent, General W. S. Hancock, one hundred and fifty-five. He took the oath of office, March 4, 1881. Since the days of the younger Adams, no chief magistrate of our country has been a man of such scholarly attainments as President Garfield, nor has brought to his high office such experience in statesmanship. His inaugural foreshadowed an able administration; but alas! he was not to be permitted to work out his wise designs. For four months he endured the ordeal of office-seekers' importunities through which each successive President is forced to pass, owing to the prevalence of the pernicious doctrine, that public offices are rewards to be bestowed upon political managers. On the 2d of July, as he was leaving Washington to visit his Alma Mater, and pass a few days in quiet and intellectual enjoyment in New England, he was shot at, and mortally wounded, by a wretch whose very name, says a French writer, should, as a supreme homage to his noble victim, be forever ignored.

The deed caused wide-spread horror. The great people with whom we speak a common tongue, from Queen to peasant; princes and subjects of every land hastened to express their sorrow, shared the anxiety of the lingering sickness, and mingled their tears with those of the people of America when the end came on the 19th of September. The wounded President lay at the White House until September 6th, when he was tenderly conveyed to his cottage by the sea at Elberton, N. J., and there his death took place. He was buried at Cleveland, with imposing ceremonies. His private life was one of great purity, while his every public act was inspired by the loftiest of motives, those of honoring his Maker, and benefitting his fellow-man.
[Source: Biographical sketches of preeminent Americans, Volume 4; By Frederick G. Harrison; Publ. 1893; Transcribed for Genealogy Trails by Andrea Stawski Pack.]

Jas. A. Garfield Passes Away
The Nation in Mourning
Through True Patriotism, Devotion to Duty and High Moral Worth, He Reaches The Achme of Greatness to Die at the Hand of The Assassin
At 10:35 P.M., Sept. 19th, Surrounded by Loved Ones, the Scholar, Soldier and Statesman Quietly Breathes His Last
The Last Bulletin
Elberton, N. J., Sept. 19, 11:30 P.M. – The President died at 10:35 P.M.
After the bulletin was issued at 5:30 this evening the President continued in much the same condition as during the afternoon, the pulse varying from 102 to 106, with rather increased force and volume. After taking nourishment he fell into a quiet sleep. About 35 minutes before his death and while asleep his pulse rose to 120 and was somewhat more feeble. At ten minutes past 10 he awoke complaining of severe pain over the region of the heart and almost immediately became unconscious and ceased to breathe at 10:30.
D. W. Bliss, Frank H. Hamilton, D. Hays Agnes

The Last Scene
Long Branch, Sept. 20, 1 A.M. – Previous to his death the only words spoken by the president was that he had a severe pain in his heart. Death was occasioned by a clot of blood forming in the heart. Dr. Bliss was the first one notified of the president’s expression of pain, and upon entering the room at once saw that the end was near and members of the family were immediately summoned to the bedside. All arrived and perfect quiet prevailed. Mrs. Garfield bore the trying ordeal with great fortitude and exhibited unprecedented courage. She gave way to no paroxysm of grief, and after death became evident she quietly withdrew to her own room. There she sat, a heart-stricken widow full of grief, but with too much courage to exhibit it to those about her. She was laboring under a horrible strain and despite her efforts tears flowed from her eyes and her lips became drawn by her noble attempt to bear the burden with which she had been afflicted. Miss Mollie was greatly affected and bursts of tears flowed from her eyes, notwithstanding her noble effort to follow the example of her mother. The death scene was one never to be forgotten. Perfect quiet prevailed while the president was sinking. After death had been pronounced the body was properly arranged by Dr. J. A. Boynton. Telegrams were immediately sent to the president’s mother in Ohio and his sons Henry and James, who are at Williams college; also the vice-president and other prominent public men.

Boynton’s Account of the Death

Elberton, Sept. 20 – Dr. Boynton gives the following account of the death scene: “He had been sleeping quietly until about 10 minutes before his death. I stepped into the room to examine his pulse and found it had grown weaker, but not alarmingly so. I remarked it to Swain. The President said to Swain, “Oh Swain, what a terrible pain I have here,” and placed his hand upon his breast over the heart. Doctors and members of the family had by that time gathered, and the colored man stood at the door. There was scarcely a perceptible movement in any other than the sufferer’s features, and no movement of the limbs. The pulse grew less frequent, and Agnew bent over him and examined it. He found no pulse. I put my ear down to the heart, but discovered no pulse. Mrs. Garfield placed her hands on his chest, partly bending over him, until after he died. All of us sat there a little while, and then we left the room. The first time Mrs. Garfield broke down in tears was when she left the door of her room. She returned in half an hour and remained with her husband till 2 A.M. Swain and Agnew remained for some time.

His Last Words

The President’s words when he felt the death pain attack him were, “I am suffering great pain, and I fear the end is near.”

Garfield’s Property
Washington, Sept. 20 – The President made no will. He said he was willing to trust the courts to divide equally his property, which amounted to $25,000, and included his house in the city, which is mortgaged.

The President’s Insurance
The President had $25,000 insurance in the Equitable Insurance Company, and had considerable in other companies.

President Arthur
New York, Sept. 20, 3:15 A.M. – In accordance with the dispatch received from the cabinet in regard to taking the oath of office, messengers were sent to different judges of the supreme court. First to put in an appearance was Judge John R. Brady, who was closely followed by Justice Donahue. The party, consisting of the Vice President and the judges named, besides District Attorney Rollins, Elihu Root and the eldest son of the new President, assembled in the front parlor of No. 123 Lexington avenue, General Arthur’s residence, where the oath of office was administered and he became President of the United States. The President has not signified his intention as to when he will visit the capital and declined to be interviewed as to his future course.

President Arthur Takes the Oath
Long Branch, Sept. 20 – 12 M. – MacVeagh has just received this reply to the dispatch sent by the Cabinet to General Arthur last night. It is addressed to all the members of the Cabinet and says:
I have your message announcing the death of President Garfield. Permit me to renew, through you, my expression of sorrow and sympathy which I have already telegraphed Attorney General MacVeagh. In accordance with your suggestion I have taken the oath of office as President of the United States before Hon. John R. Brady, Justice of the Supreme Court of New York.
C. A. Arthur
[The Eugene City Guard (Eugene, OR) – Saturday, September 24, 1881 - Submitted by Jim Dezotell]



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